A church's grand sacrifice

Uniontown: St. Paul's aging congregation decides to close early and share its resources with charities and a school.

December 28, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A plain white clapboard church with a three-story bell tower has stood at the entrance to Uniontown for 130 years. Several generations of Carroll County families have worshiped within its confines, baptized their infants at its marble font and buried their loved ones with prayers before an aging mural of Christ at Gethsemane.

A simple wooden sign graces the front lawn and welcomes the faithful to St. Paul's Lutheran Church, promising that it is "a place where values are taught."

As this small country church holds its final service today, its dwindling congregation is showing it has not lost sight of values. The parishioners are closing their church while they still have resources so they can pass along their assets to various charities and a fledgling Lutheran school.

Terry L. Frock, who was president of the church council several times and is the fourth generation of his family to worship at St. Paul's, will ring the steeple bell one last time to announce the final service. Bishop H. Gerard Knoche, leader of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, will preside as Frock hands over the records of baptisms, weddings and funerals that "symbolize the joys and sorrows of the people of God in this place" - and then asks the bishop to "receive and preserve them so that the ministry of this congregation may be remembered."

The records will be preserved at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. Many church furnishings will be formally carried out of the building today and given to other congregations. Mount Union Church near Union Bridge, established in 1870 along with St. Paul's, will receive the baptismal font.

The closing will leave a void in this small farming community, but the congregation of St. Paul's has created a lasting memorial with organizations such as Shepherd's Staff, Carroll Hospice and Tanzanian missions as well as Carroll Lutheran School, which will receive proceeds from the sale of the building.

"This is a wonderful gift that shows St. Paul's members as messengers of care, concern and love," said the Rev. David Schafer, board member of the school and pastor of St. Benjamin's Lutheran Church in Westminster. "They could have survived a few more years and spent down all their resources. Instead, they are contributing to a school, a living, breathing entity that is the future."

The school, established at St. Benjamin's four years ago, has 66 pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade. Plans call for a seventh grade in the fall and for converting St. Paul's parish hall into temporary classrooms for the upper grades. The gift from St. Paul's will help launch a campaign for a new school building, where a room will be named after St. Paul's, Schafer said.

"This is not the usual way a church closes, but it is a scriptural way, a faithful decision to give everything away," said the Rev. Kathryn A. Rohrbach, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Deer Park, who also conducted services as St. Paul's interim pastor. "This congregation is leaving together and determining what will happen to its assets."

A Westminster funeral home has expressed interest in the Uniontown building and holding services there once the school vacates it.

"Hopefully, they will never have to dismantle the chapel," said Freda Birchett, longtime St. Paul's member. "What I will miss most is the closeness of the people. We are like a family. We will join other churches, but it won't be the same."

Elsie Baust, a member since she married into the congregation 60 years ago, said, "It saddens me much. It is like a family breaking up. But we live so close that we will continue to see the building."

The congregation numbers 23 active members, many of them advanced in age. The parish could not offer the programs that attract new members, such as multiple worship times and styles, Sunday school and Bible studies. St. Paul's can no longer afford a full-time minister, and no one has offered to join the church council, whose members must resign their positions every two years.

"We had nothing to offer young families to encourage them to join us," Frock said. "We have not been able to afford a full-time pastor since the early '90s, and things were not getting better. We decided not to spend the money we have available on ourselves. We can put it to good use for causes outside our congregation."

In September, the council, with advice from Lutheran church leaders, voted unanimously to close.

"This is like losing a landmark," said Miriam West, a Uniontown resident for nearly all her 91 years, who was baptized and married at St. Paul's. "The closing is very sad. I can remember when the church was so packed, people were sitting in the aisles."

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